Mauna Kea: Science amidst the Spiritual

Last month, my husband and I were lucky enough to spend ten days in Hawai’i. When we were there, we got to visit the observatories on Mauna Kea. If you are ever on the Big Island, I cannot recommend this excursion enough.

Mauna Kea is an inactive volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The peak of Mauna Kea is 13,803 feet above sea level, and about 30,000 feet above its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. By this measurement, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain, taller than Mount Everest, which is the highest mountain above sea level.

Mauna Kea is, simply put, gorgeous. It’s easy to see why the native Hawai’ians consider Mauna Kea a sacred place. It’s also fairly unique: the summit is above approximately 40% of Earth’s atmosphere (we moved VERY slowly up there) and 90% of the water vapor and is also well above the inversion layer, which leads to approximately 300 clear nights per year. Also, at 20°N latitude, all of the northern sky and most of the southern sky is visible and the low population density means there is very little human-made light pollution. All this means that Mauna Kea is perfect for astronomy.

Unfortunately, the unique nature of Mauna Kea has caused controversy over the years, and it’s a great example of how science and spirituality come into conflict and how important it is to resolve these conflicts with respect and empathy.

In 1963, the executive secretary of the Hawai’i Island Chamber of Commerce was looking for ways to boost the economy of the Big Island, which had been severely hurt by a tsunami that hit a few years prior. Mitsuo Akiyama contacted several U.S. and Japanese universities and research organizations suggesting the development of Mauna Kea as an astronomical site.

His request caught the attention of Gerard Kuiper, who noticed that the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa stood well above the cloud layer. Kuiper and Akiyama started a project to ‘tame’ Mauna Kea, requesting state funds to install a road to the summit and requesting funds from NASA to start building scopes on the mountain.

By 1992, thirteen scopes were built and operational on Mauna Kea. But the scopes came at a cost. The native Hawai’ans were furious that the mountain, considered sacred land, had been overrun by technology:

The snow-covered alpine summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawai’i is profoundly sacred to Native Hawaiians and all Polynesians. Native Hawaiian cultural rights and the integrity of public trust resources (ceded Hawaiian lands) are seriously threatened by imminent proposals for massive telescope expansion. Since 1968 the summit has withstood an onslaught of astronomy programs from ten of the world’s wealthiest nations, all competing to construct ever larger telescopes to gaze at the heavens—meanwhile trampling the natural and cultural treasures found throughout this unique and fragile region.

The Hawai’ians believe that Poliahu, goddess of snow, rules over the summit region as a testimonial to her triumph over the raging lava of her nemesis Pele, the goddess of fire. They also believe that the summit area is the dwelling place of deities and divine ancestors. Unfortunately, the telescopes on Mauna Kea:

block the sacred summit’s panoramic view—pivotal to traditional Native Hawaiian Solstice and Equinox ceremonies, which continue to this day. Aligning coordinates is an ancient practice that is no longer possible due to obstructions of the view from the telescopes. In addition, the view of the mountain from sea level is scarred by a score of massive telescopes, outbuildings and roads.

In addition, they had serious environmental concerns about the water quality of the alpine lake and the near-extermination of the weiku bug, which is unique to the area, all due to the high levels of construction and technology being brought onto the mountain.

In 2007, a Hawai’ian court ruled that no further construction could occur on Mauna Kea, halting plans for additional telescopes. The ruling required Hawa’ii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to come up with a comprehensive plan to protect the mountain’s natural and cultural resources before any additional construction could be completed. The plan had to take into account the cultural and social significance of the mountain, as well as the air quality, fauna and flora protection and other serious environmental concerns that had been raised over the years.

A comprehensive management plan was created for Mauna Kea and this outlined detailed assessments of the issues that needed to be addressed and put together a set of rules for how these issues would be handled going forward. The plan started with the establishment of a separate organization, responsible for the management of Mauna Kea. This team works to ensure the scientific, cultural and environmental concerns are all met.

The plan put in limitations on how construction on the mountain is handled, including ensuring that any worker on the mountain has training to understand the fragile nature of the environment and appropriate behavior. It also put in buffer zones around historical AND astronomical areas; ensuring that visitors were limited in these areas.

The interesting thing about the plan was that it took into account all aspects of Mauna Kea. The astronomical requirements to prevent light pollution, radio frequency interference (RFI) and dust were just as important as the requirements to protect the natural habitat of the animals on Mauna Kea and the ability for local Hawai’ians to visit the mountain to spread the ashes of their loved ones.

Today, Mauna Kea hosts thirteen telescopes of varying sizes and purposes, serving astronomical projects around the world. Visitors can drive up there in controlled groups and tour the observatories, wander around the summit and watch the sunset. You can then drive back down to the visitor’s center (with its crazy amounts of oxygen at just 9,000 ft) and star gaze into the night, with volunteer astronomers to show off the clear night sky.

The Mauna Kea management board and the government of Hawai’i know the value of the scientific research being done on the mountain. It also helps that the construction, maintenance and ongoing work on the telescopes feeds the local economy considerably. So the plan, which was approved just last year, factors all this in.

New telescopes are finally in the planning phase for Mauna Kea and it seems that growth is in the future for this scientific stronghold in the sky.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I don’t dare weigh in on the controversy (it’s been an issue here in Arizona too, disputes over sacred mountains), but I toured Mauna Kea last year and loved it. I was actually there on the International Day of Astronomy. That’s where my userpic is from.

    Lovely photos, glad you had fun!

  2. Considering recognized Native American tribes “own” the children of tribal members even if the parents do not live on tribal lands and want nothing to do with the tribe, what’s a little spirit angst over a mountain or a little nick.

  3. I was up there last year, and I can definitely say it’s well worth taking the time to visit the observatories. Unfortunately, it was raining that day so I missed out on the view. If you’re by yourself (or too cheap to pay for a tour) you can still drive to the top, although the road past the visitors center is insanely bumpy… I’m talking like time cube insane here.

  4. this was a great article and i really enjoyed it. It means a lot to me to see this type of discussion because it’s something that comes into my everyday life as i work on a lot of uranium mines in northeast wyoming. there are always cultural sensitivity issues to deal with and one of my biggest learning experiences has been dealing with this. My instinct tells me to ask what the hell some pipes in the ground a 4 buildings are going disturb of the “spirits” that the ranchers living there haven’t already disturbed, when they the tribe is located over 200 miles away. But i can’t just say that. Dealing with these issues in a realistic but respectful way is one of the biggest PR issues i’ve been trying to tackle lately.

  5. The trip uphill from the bathrooms to the parking lot was the hardest 100 yards I’ve ever done. We were on the summit for about 4 hours, and after a harrowing drive back down over the potholes and in the fading light, I thought I was going to faint from all the air at the visitor center, and that’s at almost 10,000 feet.

    Amazing place, though.

  6. OK, I feel like a total dork / fanboy, but it made me quite happy to see you posting pics of sub-millimeter valley and the SMA (pics 4 and 2, respectively). These telescopes don’t produce as many APOD amenable pictures as the optical and infrared telescopes (most things look a bit blobby in the radio – longer wavelength equates to poorer resolution. Or perhaps we just don’t have as many PR people?), but we get so much awesome science done with them that can’t be done anywhere else (OK, to be fair, the optical/IR peeps can make the same claim for the ridge). The SMA is an interferometer that can use the multiple dishes together to pick out details as if they were a dish half a kilometer wide (allowing for cool things like mapping out the disks of dust and gas out of which planets form), and the JCMT and CSO are massive 12 and 15 meter dishes, with instruments that can peer through thick dust to see stars being born (hrm, I guess I’ve just betrayed my biases…). I always feel disappointed when I see tourists park in the valley and turn as one to photograph the big glass on the ridge, ignoring the radio telescopes. To me, there’s no telescope sight more beautiful than the 8 SMA antennas turning in sync to follow a target.

  7. My brother is a photographer living on the Big Island so I’ve had my walks around the summit. You don’t need to look through a telescope to understand the scientific importance of the summit for observation. Your own eyes notice the difference when you are up there. The contrast and crispness is shocking. It makes life down at sea level feel as if you are experiencing life through dusty glasses.
    Then you black out from trying to walk to the geologic summit marker 20 yards from the road…

  8. @SkepLit:

    We actually skipped climbing to the geologic summit. I wanted to save my waning energy in case I needed to help rescue the ones who did climb up there.


    You’re right about watching the SMA antennae turn together. We would look away, then look back to see they had moved. We eventually caught them turning on video. (That video is rated N for Nerdgasm.)

  9. Wow, beautiful pictures, and (as usual) great article. I hope one day to get there, too. It seems the committee that was put together to work out a compromise is actually working.

  10. Behind on feeds b/c I’ve been in Green Bank, but had to say….


    Also, this is not the only site for astronomy that has had issues with cultural issues and spiritual beliefs of the locals. To run from RFI and light pollution, we often run into area that have these concerns.

    Thanks for sharing this story!!

  11. @scaurus: YES!! Have you seen the NRAO image contest? I think they still hold it every year, and it encourages scientists to compete for a prize for pretty radio images, and in turn creates some fantastically artistic images for public use.

    It is true that radio does not have as many PR people, but the few that are doing it work tirelessly at it. Things will start to turn around as ALMA will have a lot of money in the budget for EPO.

    “To me, there’s no telescope sight more beautiful than the 8 SMA antennas turning in sync to follow a target.”

    I dunno…. seeing 26 VLA antennas moving is a pretty inspiring sight as well, especially if they are taking YOUR data.

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